Forty-eight days: That’s the average time people who are suspected of immigration violations are held in detention in Washington state before they are released or deported. A new report from researchers at Syracuse University also concludes that among states with the largest populations of detainees, Washington ranks among the worst for long detention times: number 20 out of 30.
The findings are based on two months of federal immigration data from 2012. In the report, authors David Burnham and Susan B. Long point to an irony: “Perversely, individuals who were legally entitled to remain in the United States typically experienced the longest detention times, sometimes stretching on for years before they won their cases and were released."
That’s no surprise to Betsy Tao, a lead attorney with the Northwest Immigration Rights Project who represents immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. “The people who are likely to be willing to stay and fight their case, it’s because their case is strong and they have a legitimate reason to not to want to give up,” Tao said.
In the two months covered in the report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained 18 people in Washington who turned out to have a legal right to be in the US. Tao said those types of cases can include people who are eligible for asylum, residency or a green card and may have had a pending immigration petition at the time they were picked up.
Immigration officials in Seattle have said the priority for detention is “serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.” For people with a strong case who don’t pose a safety risk, Tao suggests that a better alternative to detention could be supervised release or ankle bracelets.
Even when a detainee is cleared and free to go, Tao points to another snag – the government provides no resources to help the person re-integrate back into the community. "Locally in Tacoma it’s only volunteers and people who are interested in providing that social service,” Tao said. “It’s definitely a big problem; a big gap.”
On an average day, about 1,300 people are held in detention at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.